Back in 1990 and 1991, while Twin Peaks was on the air, some critics considered the show too confusing; some even went so far as to label it "impenetrable." Back then, Twin Peaks was more demanding than most television fare: the show had a very large number of characters and numerous complicated plots. If you hadn't been watching it from the beginning—or if you missed an episode or two in the middle—you could become hopelessly lost.
While some claim that Twin Peaks' complex nature was a primary cause for the show's downfall, others believe that the show's complicated structure was its most engaging feature. Both viewpoints may be right. The complexity of Twin Peaks was certainly an appealing factor, but in the second season, when the show splintered into a number of minor (and inconsequential) subplots, it lost some of that appeal.
Author Brad Chisholm cited Twin Peaks when writing about the "pleasures of complex viewing" in a 1991 essay for Critical Studies in Mass Communication. Chisholm explained that the writers of Twin Peaks "exceeded the average number of simultaneous plot-lines" that television audiences were used to seeing. Most serial dramas featured four or five plot-lines per episode and rarely stretched storylines over more than four or five weeks. Twin Peaks, by contrast, regularly featured twice that many plots in storylines that lasted months rather than weeks. Chisholm states that many Twin Peaks fans "considered the unending plot-lines and unfathomable occurrences central to the show's appeal."
In order to better understand just how complicated and expansive many of Twin Peaks' stories were, I "graphed" all the show's major plot-lines. (Click to enlarge.)
As you can see, the series packed a lot into thirty episodes.
Each plot-line is represented by a horizontal line. In some cases, where a plot evolved into another (e.g. Leo is brain-dead, and later Shelly and Bobby care for him), the line is both dashed and solid. The beginning or ending of a plot is represented by bullets. Diagonal lines indicate where plots branched off (or flowed into) others. The storyline involving Josie Packard is disjointed due to Josie's lengthy disappearances from the show. Her plot-lines, however, are directly connected, and so I've represented the story "gaps" with connecting arcs. Some plot developments are not easily "graphable" (such as Josie shooting Cooper and Albert later discovering her identity) and are not represented here, further proof of the complexity of the Twin Peaks narrative. Finally, I've separated the first season from the second with a vertical dashed line.
The chart reveals some interesting patterns. It clearly indicates a dividing line between episode 16 and 17. In 16, Agent Cooper solves the Laura Palmer murder, a story which dominates the series from the beginning. With that storyline concluded, the show's writers introduce a number of smaller storylines in the following episode. Six new major plots are started (among them: Cooper is framed, the Black Lodge mystery is introduced, Ben goes crazy, Evelyn Marsh blackmails James, etc.) By episode 23, most of these storylines conclude, and a series of new plot-lines begin (the Cooper/Annie romance, Save the Pine Weasel campaign, Miss Twin Peaks, etc.).
It's easy to see that the second half of the second season consisted of two parts. The first part, which begins at episode 17, is where Twin Peaks receives the most criticism. Many of the storylines in the subsequent seven-episode span are simplistic to the point of silliness. Ben Horne's Civil War fantasies, Andy and Dick's involvement with Little Nicky, the marriage of Dougie Milford—all these stories served as "space fillers" so that the show's large cast would have something to do.
Meanwhile, Cooper and Earle's chess game, and their subsequent involvement with the Black Lodge, is a plot that practically simmers in the background. Mark Frost commented on this phase of the series in Wrapped In Plastic #9: "In retrospect, I think the Windom Earle story started too slowly. Laura was a very hard act to follow in terms of storytelling, and we probably should have come out of the gate a little quicker with the Windom Earle story."
Once the Laura Palmer plot concludes, the producers of Twin Peaks fail to develop another strong, encompassing mystery in which to involve the cast. Instead, they rely on a variety of shorter, inconsequential subplots to keep the series moving. Unfortunately, most of these small storylines are isolated entities, existing and unfolding on their own. Twin Peaks worked best when its characters shared a deeper connection, when they were components of a larger plot such as the Laura Palmer mystery. (The show seemed to get back on track near the end—too late to save it from cancellation, however.)
Mark Frost was right. Had the Windom Earle story been "up and running" earlier, the show might have stayed stronger for a longer period of time. But, as the chart shows, that story was initially lost in a collage of meaningless mini-plots. In the end, Twin Peaks may have collapsed under its own weight; losing momentum to fractured subplots and silly storylines.
All of this was a sad result of network demands and the pressure to deliver satisfactory ratings on a weekly basis—relics of a different television era. The new Twin Peaks of 2017, however, will not suffer from the arbitrary demands of network TV. It will not drift and shift according to ratings and cast considerations, or become diluted by commercial pressures. The new Twin Peaks will reflect the keen artistic sensibilities of its creators. From the moment it first airs, it will be complete and substantial, deliberate and fully-defined.
We won’t need a chart to tell us that.
(A slightly different version of this article first appeared in Wrapped In Plastic, #14, (December, 1994). Whew! 22 years ago!)